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Risk Producer Brenda Coughlin talks Assange, Censorship and Criticism

WE live in tense, volatile times. Trump, Brexit, Venezuela, artificial intelligence, North Korea, internet privacy, ISIS. Need I say more?

For many of us, the cinema can provide a space to escape to, at least momentarily. Currently, the riotous fun of Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver gives us this (go and watch it, please). Conversely, cinema can be a place where we confront and engage with difficult worldly issues.

Last Friday (June 30), London’s Bertha DocHouse (located at Curzon Bloomsbury) hosted a screening of Laura Poitras’ latest extraordinary documentary, Risk. This is the final film in her post 9/11 trilogy which features My Country, My Country (2006) and The Oath (2014).

The film’s showing was then followed by a Q&A with producers Brenda Coughlin and Yoni Golijov. It rounded off a challenging, enlightening (on a personal front) and, at times, hostile evening.

Poitras’ controversial film paints a fascinating portrait of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange over a six year period –  2010 to 2016. Thanks to access gained by Piotras through her connections with Field of Vision co-creator Charlotte Cook, audiences are privy to some remarkable and revealing moments involving the controversial Australian – episodes that tell the viewer a lot about his image, ego and fame.

They include the time Assange attempted – and failed  – to get in contact with Hilary Clinton from his hideout at Ellingham Hall, Norfolk. Also, the visit from pop-star Lady GaGa at the Embassy of Ecuador in London where he remains a virtual prisoner.

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Yet, it is the film’s focus on Assange’s handling of sexual assault allegations – made by two Swedish women in 2010 – that has provoked the most intense reaction. More worryingly, as far as Poitras is concerned, the wrath of WikiLeaks’ legal team.

This recently included cease and desist letters sent to US distributors. A tactic that Coughlin expects to see more of as the film is released in individual countries.  As she pointed out at the Q&A, the actions of WikiLeaks’ legal team are devised not only to discredit Risk but to prevent the film from reaching a wider audience.

Speaking defiantly on the eve of the film’s UK release, Coughlin explained her team’s position. She said:  ‘We showed cuts to many people in the film, not only WikiLeaks. We took their notes and took them very seriously. Some of those notes were insightful, some were points of correction or fact and some were, from our perspective, very much about image management.

‘Assange wanted the specific scenes in the film removed where he talked about the Swedish case. That was obviously not something we were willing to do. I do not think most directors would be willing to censor their film. We find it sad and obviously quite contradictory for an organisation that is dedicated, as we believe it is, to press freedom and additionally to transparency.’

Not everyone in attendance at the DocHouse was in agreement. One audience member voiced his dissent by stating the film and Coughlin’s words  amounted to a ‘hatchet job’. When Coughlin responded by asking for examples of the hatcheting, the individual struggled to articulate his answer (a genuine shame for those who wanted to hear the issue properly debated).

Coughlin still went on to rebut the claim by discussing Poitras’ cinema-verite style – an observational approach unlike on-screen documentary filmmakers Michael Moore (confrontational) and Louis Theroux (conversational).

She explained:  ‘It is a 90 minute film and Assange is in almost every frame. He speaks for himself. Those are his words and he is the one who says how he feels about the case. We followed aspects of the case, but as Laura has said publically, it wasn’t the film she set out to make – she set out to make one about journalism.

‘But that was what was happening. Assange didn’t think it was a ‘hatchet job’ when I showed it to him on April 1 [how ironic] at the embassy. It is a portrait that allows him and others to speak for themselves.’

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Picture via @Dogwoof on Twitter

The WikiLeaks’ legal team and hatchet job claims have not been the only hurdles that Poitras and her team have had to overcome. Just two weeks after a version of Risk was screened at the 2016 Cannes film festival, sexual abuse allegations surfaced surrounding another prominently featured character in the film – Jacob Appelbaum.

Coughlin admitted the Appelbaum allegations came as a ‘bombshell’ and threw the film’s future into doubt. She said: ‘We were either going to have to shelve the film or we would have to address it [the Appelbaum allegations].’

Of course, they opted for the latter and pushed back the film’s release. Coughlin continued: ‘How to address it [the Appelbaum situation] then became the struggle of the next year. Then the US election story happened and WikiLeaks was back on the front-page of the New York Times.’

Poitras and the Risk team ended up deciding on a technical tweak to address the Appelbaum allegations and the drastically shifted world context – a change that goes against Piotras’ cinema-verite style. Coughlin explained: ‘We went to the formal device of narration at a very late stage. It was something we really wrestled with.

‘It goes from production journal to very personal revelations. And it does change the film, but we felt the audience needed some outside observation to what is a very tight, closed and claustrophobic film. Which is obviously the experience of Assange. He was under detention and to this day remains in a very tight atmosphere. In the film this was some way to bring us out of that.’

Even with the addition of Poitras’ faint narration, Risk does not hand the viewer neatly drawn out conclusions. We are left to decipher scenes, to trust or not to trust and, in many cases, search beyond the film itself.

A few vocal participants at the DocHouse screening voiced their concern about this ambivalence – perhaps cautious of more sinister intentions. One man went as far as to question the film’s accessibility to ‘unsophisticated’ audiences.

Coughlin was quick to disagree: ‘For me, audiences are sophisticated. I think audiences, all audiences, always have incredible insight into films, into theatre, into poetry. I don’t think it’s a question of the sophisticated audience against the other.’

She then followed this by revealing what she believes willing viewers can obtain from Risk:  ‘I hope people come away from this film thinking seriously about the questions that we all face about information. What journalism means in an age of mass leaks, possibly with state actors involved.’

She added: ‘I was very interested to read about the role of the Chaos Computer Club, a hacker company based out of Hamburg in Germany, and their role in hacks for the upcoming German elections. Those are the kind of things we hope our film will address, but also we don’t want to lose sight of the story about abuse of power and sexual dynamics in organisations we work in as political activists, social movements and other kinds of work places.’

Risk is a challenging and stimulating film which I urge you to go and see. It will polarise audiences as it did at the Q&A.

It is also a risky and courageous film which Poitras, Coughlin and Golijov should take great credit for. Risks that maybe, in his more sanguine moments, Assange will secretly acknowledge and admire. After all, he is the ultimate risk taker.

Thanks for reading. Please like, comment and share!

Click here for more info on the brilliant Bertha DocHouse

Also read: Hair-Raising Australian Horror – Hounds of Love (Film Review)

The American Dream in the Dark – Nightcrawler (Film Review)

Wrestling With Reality – The Wrestler (2008)

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